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Dowdy v. Pamunkey Regional Jail Authority

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

May 15, 2014

ALFRED F. DOWDY, as Administrator of the Estate of Michael Edward Watson, Plaintiff,
v.
PAMUNKEY REGIONAL JAIL AUTHORITY, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JOHN A. GIBNEY, Jr., District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court on the defendants' Motion to Dismiss. (Dk. No. 2.) The four-count complaint stems from the suicide of Michael Edward Watson, an inmate at the Pamunkey Regional Jail. The plaintiff, as administrator of Watson's estate, alleges state law tort claims and § 1983 claims against the Jail Authority and several of its officials and officers.

The Complaint names eight defendants: the Pamunkey Regional Jail Authority (the "PRJA"); James C. Willet, the Superintendent of the jail; Mary White, the Deputy Superintendent; Mark Claveau, Captain of Security; Michael Berumez, the acting Intake Officer during the events in question; Melinda Workman, an emergency medical technician on duty during Watson's intake; Aaron Garthaffner, a sergeant on duty that same evening; and Jason Allen ("Allen"), a second PRJA officer present during that time.[1]

Count I of the Complaint alleges negligence, gross negligence, and willful and wanton negligence against each defendant. Count II, asserted against the "officer defendants" (those PRJA employees who actually administratively processed, medically screened, and monitored Watson), alleges unconstitutionally deliberate indifference to Watson's medical condition. Count III alleges institutional and supervisory liability claims under § 1983. Finally, Count IV asserts a § 1983 conspiracy claim.[2]

The defendants have moved to dismiss each Count. Because sovereign immunity protects the PRJA and the supervisory defendants, the Court will dismiss Count I as to them. The other defendants, however, do not enjoy the complete protection of sovereign immunity, and Count I will go forward against them, but only as a claim of gross negligence or willful and wanton conduct. The Court DENIES the motion to dismiss Count II, a § 1983 claim against the Officer Defendants, because the allegations state a claim of deliberate indifference. Count III fails to state a claim of institutional or supervisory liability, and the Court will GRANT the motion to dismiss it. The intra-corporate conspiracy doctrine bars the plaintiff's § 1983 conspiracy claim, and so the Court GRANTS the motion to dismiss Count IV.

I. Material Facts

In ruling on a motion to dismiss, the Court must accept the plaintiff's allegations as true, but not his legal conclusions. See De Sole v. United States, 947 F.2d 1169, 1171 (4th Cir. 1991). The Court also need not accept bare-bones factual conclusions. The complainant must offer more than "labels and conclusions' or a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action' to overcome a motion to dismiss. Ashcroft v. lqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)); Nemet Chevrolet, Ltd. v. Consumeraffairs.com, Inc., 591 F.3d 250, 255-56 (4th Cir. 2009).

Viewed under this standard, the Complaint alleges the following facts:

On the evening of February 10, 2012, two Hanover County Deputy Sheriffs brought Watson to the jail. The Deputies told the PRJA's acting Intake Officer, Berumez, that Watson had said he wanted to kill himself.[3] The Deputies also gave Berumez a suicide note written by Watson. Berumez, Garthaffner, and Allen checked him into the jail and then took him to the Classification Section, where inmates receive medical screening and housing assignments.

Workman, an Emergency Medical Technician in the Classification Section, took charge of Watson at this point. Despite Workman's alleged awareness of Watson's suicidal intent, Watson received no medical or psychological treatment. Although the PRJA has individual cells within the jail's infirmary (including two specifically designed for suicide watch), Workman assigned Watson to a standard cell, complete with bed sheets.

Four days later, Watson hanged himself with those bed sheets. Although the jail took him to a local hospital, Watson died.

An emergency room physician at the hospital later called the jail. An unidentified person at the jail said that the PRJA did not know of Watson's suicidal tendencies.

II. Discussion

A. Count I: Negligence, Gross Negligence, Willful & Wanton Negligence

The motion to dismiss advances a series of objections to Count I, which contains only claims arising under state law. Only the sovereign immunity defense has any merit.

1. Sovereign Immunity

Both the PRJA and its employees enjoy the protection of sovereign immunity from claims arising under state law. That protection requires the dismissal of the PRJA and the supervisory defendants, but not of the officer defendants.

a. Immunity of PRJA

Under Virginia law, local governments may create "authorities" to perform various local duties.[4] In this case, several counties and a town have formed the PRJA to operate a regional jail. Although sovereign immunity protects cities and counties to various degrees, [5] this immunity does not carry over to entities they create. Jean Moreau & Assocs v. County Health Care Commission, 283 Va. 128, 140, 720 S.E.2d 105, 112 (2012). Instead, to have sovereign immunity, the authority itself must have attributes equivalent to a municipal corporation. Carter v. Chesterfield County Health Comm'n, 259 Va. 588, 590, 527 S.E.2d 783, 784 (2000).

Municipal corporations are entities created to "administer the state's local affairs." Black's Law Dictionary 1113 (9th ed. 2010). Typically, a municipal corporation is an entity "created for political purposes and endowed with political powers to be exercised for the public good in the administration of local civil government." Id. To decide whether an authority has the status of a municipality for immunity purposes, a court must answer two questions: First, "[h]ow many attributes of a municipal corporation does the entity in dispute possess?" Hampton Rds. Sanitation Dist. Comm'n v. Smith, 193 Va. 371, 376, 68 S.E.2d 497, 500 (1952). Second, what is the entity's function or purpose involved in the case? Id.

To have the protection of sovereign immunity, a locally created entity need not have all the characteristics of a municipal corporation. See id. at 377. But, in the limited area in which it provides services, the entity must be, in most ways, the equivalent of a local government. "While it is true that the more attributes of a municipal corporation an agency has the more likely it is to be treated as a municipal corporation, the final decision rests on the specific issue of each case." Id.

The PRJA possesses many characteristics typical of local governments. It has a quintessentially public purpose: to run a jail. Va. Code § 53.1-95.17. It has a governing body. Va. Code § 53.1-95.6. It may acquire property, appoint officers and employees, make contracts, undertake various projects, accept governmental grants and loans, and sue and be sued. Va. Code § 53.1-95.7. Its officers have arrest powers. Va. Code § 53.1-95.8. It may issue tax-free bonds. Va. Code §§ 53.1-95.10, -95.13. It is exempt from taxation. Va. Code § 53.1-95.15. The State reimburses it for construction and operational costs, and pays part of the salaries of its employees. Va. Code § 53.1-95.19. While Virginia law does not designate a jail authority as a political subdivision, for all intents an authority runs a jail the same way a city, county, or town would. The PRJA has enough characteristics of a municipal corporation to be treated as one for immunity purposes.

Given the PRJA's structure and powers, the Court will treat the PRJA as a municipal corporation for purposes of sovereign immunity. But this decision does not resolve the question of whether the PRJA has immunity for the underlying actions in this case, because the Court must consider the specific function or purpose involved in the case. A municipal corporation, like a city or town, is only immune from suit when it acts in a "governmental, " as ...


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